Krishnamurti’s individual

An objection to J. Krishnamurti is his apparent reliance on an autonomous will, on an individual effort that transcends society, culture, and ideology. Such an effort is beyond average people, and others are content with their power and possessions that they would assume themselves to be in control of their environment. Can anyone really transcend socialization, experience, and the psychology of habit?

But Krishnamurti argues, in his 1958 talk, “The Individual and the Ideal”:

Though environment conditions the individual, he can always free himself, break away from his background. The individual is the maker of the very environment to which he becomes a slave; but he has also the power to break away from it and create an environment that will not dull his mind or spirit.

But a grand autonomy is not what Krishnamurti is arguing when he cites the necessities of the individual to liberate himself or herself from one’s environment. We cannot free ourselves from experiences, language, concepts, thoughts, or material conditions. Rather, Krishnamurti is focusing on the totality of the environment we cultivate by design or default, and the degree of our conscious awareness of what we are doing. Within this sensory realm, the individual can work towards a distinction, a refinement, of the mental state.

Krishnamurti insists that the mass of humanity and our relationship to people, property, ideas, and beliefs is a flowing phenomena, ever-changing. It regularly presents “new rulers, new phrases, new priests, new doctrines.” One may go further in identifying society and its activities as a spectacle, a spectacle of spectacles mesmerizing the masses, distracting them, placating their instincts, thus allowing the powerful to go on with their control unimpeded.

The question for the individual who senses the nature of society, then, is not how to make this societal phenomenon congenial to the individual but how to get out of its way, to avoid being mesmerized and absorbed.

To do this, Krishnamurti espouses a new morality, not ethics or ideals based on authority handed down (because that has clearly failed to bring sustainability, conviviality, justice) but to begin anew with a thorough examination of the mind, being a thorough examination of the present moment.

“Our present morality is based on the past or the future, on the traditional, or the what ought to be,” says Krishnamurti, here alluding both to the authority of established traditional morality and to an extrapolation of ideologies that present a plan towards which to work. A dialectic between exchanging the past with the future is the only method known to contemporaries. And it does not work. It does not work because the past is embedded in the present, and the future is a projection of the opposite of the past — which is, in fact, our present. Hence our projected future is merely the opposite of what is our present reality. As Krishnamurti puts it, “The ideal, the what should be, helps us to cover up and avoid what is.”

We must give up the ideal future as much as we give up the troubled past. We must focus the mind on the present and the present relationships of the mind to existence. This relationship may be to people, to land, to nature, to personal habits. Krishnamurti explains this approach simply, gently, and logically. The approach is not a new one, of course. Zen demands that we stop hating ourselves and others (the past) but also stop trying to enlighten ourselves (the ideal) — just pay attention to the present moment. Gautama Buddha advised that we stop chasing after teachings and doctrines and simply pay attention to the present moment, which entails attention to the mind and all its accretions, fears, sorrows, contentments, dullness, acuteness, weariness.

As is well known, Krishnamurti did not want any given sect or system to lay claim to method, but he sought to refine philosophical thinking so that it would be available to all.

What results from attention to the present moment, a form of contemplation or meditation, is an individual who is capable of pursuing self-sustaining thoughts, actions, and plans. What is done rightly in the moment naturally continues into the next moment, and onwards. This is what Krishnamurti would present as a requisite to a discussion of society and the world. Taken up fully, the actions of such a individual would ripple out from their life to those of others, like Gandhi’s saying of being the change we want to see in the world. Only thus would the fiction of “society” be transformed. As Krishnamurti says,

Whether you begin near or far, you are there. Without understanding yourself, whatever you do will inevitably bring about confusion and sorrow. The beginning is the ending.

Ethics begins not with a set of inherited commandments or established caste or class system, or even a set dependence on certain technologies and economics, but with the mind, and what the mind of an individual can do with the present moment.


The Buddhist skandhas or aggregates describe the basics of existence, the components of all that exists. However simple and primordial, the aggregates essentially comprise that which Western science has used to describe observable phenomena. Only the method of hypothesis and experimentation is missing. But these latter are not essential to a philosophical construct based firmly on observation, which is available to all of us.

The aggregates are:

  • form or matter
  • sensation or feeling
  • perception or cognition
  • mental formations, volition, will, karma
  • consciousness

The skandhas or aggregates are usually considered important to Buddhist philosophy in presenting insights about the “self” and about impermanence. But an ethical angle ultimately emerges, and this becomes the whole point of understanding the aggregates, unlike science that does not draw out practical lessons

The placement of aggregates in a hierarchy of consciousness expresses this ethical component.

The aggregates do form a hierarchy: from matter to sentience, from sentience to cognition, from cognition to a certain level of mental interaction, and finally to consciousness. Science is interested in this hierarchy as an evolutionary phenomena, while natural philosophy posits these elements in a great chain of being. Yet historically, both science and metaphysics have missed the practical ethical implications of the aggregates and their hierarchy.

How can we formulate ethics about treatment of people, animals, and natural phenomena if we describe them as science has done historically since Descartes, and even with Darwin? Animals are machines and humans are no very far away, according to reason and science. The earth is a flexible wad of minerals to be infinitely exploited, inexhaustible, too big to fail. Only in these fading decades emerges — however judged to be sentimental and anti-technological — the Gaia theory and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Both are imaginative extrapolations of limited societal and institutional instruments, namely science and law. Science and law are limited instruments because they are subordinate to the expressions of powerful elites, not to a scientific method or to definitions of justice. This must be our first realization. But, further, these counter-theories are ethical expressions, not scientific or judicial. They attempt to recover some of the insight of a holistic philosophy of life based on the premises of the skandhas.

If matter is the common distribution of suchness, then the first principle is that all beings are interrelated. If the first stage of evolution is sensation or feeling, we can identify the structures of sensation, we can identify when a sentient being experiences pain. Thus animals are distinct from plants in that they evolved a nervous system capable of detecting pain. But plants re related to us. That is why we recognize them, find certain aesthetic value in them, even as we dismissively call them mere plants, flowers, trees. Our ancestors perceived beings within the trees, as within water and less animate matter. This was a primitive accounting for a range of sentience.

At the next level is perception and cognition. While almost all plants respond to sunlight, water, temperature, and physical forces like wind, plants did not evolve structures to be cognizant of these forces, while animals did. Indeed, animals evolved structures to become cognizant of forces that not only cause pain but cause responses to their forces.

At this point, the fourth skandha of mental perception brings a finer line between animals and humans, one blurred not so much by volition as human ability to design, intend, and carry through. Thus animal instinct for survival proposes only fight or flight as options to danger. Violence in the animal world is completely related to survival. Human beings use volition to survive also, but extend the instinct of fight or flight by willfully designing more complex and intentional forms of violence. While animals can be violent, based on their evolutionary instinct for survival, human beings cultivate primordial instincts into elaborate and willful forms of violence, including aggression, war, and torture.

The fifth skandha — consciousness — is reserved to human beings, a premature gift, or a wound, of evolution. Human consciousness is comprised of the ability to reflect, and the ability to reflect on reflection. We can watch our thoughts or listen to our conversation. We can watch ourselves expressing what we think, believe, deny, wonder about, lie about, express with heartfelt sentiment or shallow condemnation. The most odious commands and the most loving expressions come from the same consciousness, and the self can watch them, monitor them, be aware of them. This makes human sentience different from that of any other creature we know. The witness that watches the self, that is aware of what the self does or thinks, is uniquely overbearing.

Such is the hierarchy of being and sentience that also compels an ethics. That overbearingness of the witness is what we commonly call cconscience, that which impedes humanity by its silent acquiescent, beaten down by society and culture and that psychological product of society we call our self. It is identity but not self, at least not a mature self, a self identical with, merged with, in union wityh the so-called witness.

But self is inevitably overlooked in the mass of humanity. That all things are connected, that human consciousness obliges humans to hold this interconnectedness as the touchstone of all behavior, all action — this is the compelling conclusion that science increasingly shows, but which was known millennia ago. That peoples have conveniently overlooked the logic of observation with regard to ethics only debases the whole enterprise we call society and culture.

But to ancient Buddhists, the skandhas pointed much further. Not only to the preciousness, the rarity of being a human being, but to the ironic ephemerality of that pinnacle of the conscious animal. The skandhas point to the fact that no self inhabits this mortal frame, this delicate consciousness. For when the aggregates collapse in old age and death, where is the self? Where is that consciousness? Buddhism was reluctant to venture into metaphysics. It did not matter where that self, that consciousness, went. Even the reflection on such questions distracted from the core of living, from ethics, from the question of what we are to do now, today, tomorrow.

For religious Buddhism, the bardo and rebirth was a solution to a riddle. Their equivalent in all the religions of the world have similarly been proposed solutions to a great riddle. But the status of beyond was not relevant to the observer here and now. To the observer, the aggregates had dissolved, the self was gone, consciousness had dissipated. How the survivor felt, this gut feeling about death, was the beginning of philosophy, the not-turning-back from the existential reality of the dissolution of the aggregates. For if this dissolution occurs at every level of form and matter, every level of sentience, can it be argued that we should be exempt, that we should not share the fate of all other sentient beings, all of us brought together mysteriously, fortuitously, but destined to be dispersed who knows where?

In moments of solitude, we can rest in the flow of sentience, in the pattern of the observed. We can touch upon that which was before our birth and which remains after our death. And touching on this we can realize it in our consciousness. Our consciousness can rest in the process even as we experience sentience, even as we chase after this or that impermanence only to finally realize where everything is headed. A new ethics can emerge from this reflection on the aggregates of existence. Our shoddy tolerance of all that is contrived destructiveness in the human being can be seen to be nothing but frustrated evolution, broken and incomplete, no more than pointless failure to think deeply on the sensations we feel and entertain. If we can grasp the experience of solitude, we are that close to an ethics that can bring contentment.